“Women will run the 21st Century….
This is going to be the women’s century and
young people are going to be its leaders.”
—Bella Abzug, April 1997
Bella S. Abzug (1920-1998) was one of the most influential and recognizable female politicians and leaders of the late 20th century.
Former Congresswoman Bella Abzug was an activist her entire life, beginning in early adolescence when she delivered impassioned speeches in the subways for causes she championed. After an acclaimed career as a civil rights lawyer, peace activist and political organizer, the Hunter College and Columbia Law School graduate sought public office for the first time at age 50 under her famous slogan: “This woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.” She decisively won election to Congress in 1970 beating an 18-year incumbent to represent Manhattan’s West Side and Lower East Side. Bella helped to bring billions of dollars in public works and transportation funding to New York State and authored or co-authored several historic bills, including Title IX, a bill prohibiting sex discrimination in educational opportunities by schools receiving Federal funding assistance (though Title IX did not mention athletics, it became known most prominently for its impact on high school and college sports), the Freedom of Information Act, and the first law banning discrimination against women with respect to obtaining credit.
Bella also chaired historic hearings on government secrecy. She was voted by her colleagues the third most influential member of the House as reported in the U.S. News and World Report. Bella was known for her keen intelligence, her flamboyance and her colorful wide-brimmed hats. Often recognized by these vibrant hats, Bella reminded all who admired them: “It’s what’s under the hat that counts!”
Ms. Abzug was the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from New York. After losing the Senate race to Patrick Moynihan in 1976 (by less than 1 percent!), Bella ran for Mayor of New York City in 1977, becoming the first woman ever to run for that office. As a result of her groundbreaking campaigns for higher office, Bella is often credited with paving the way for women aspiring to even higher levels of office, and opening doors to power for all women and especially to generations of women leaders in politics and government. Increasingly influential on the national and world stages, Bella went on to serve as Chairwoman of President Carter’s National Women’s Advisory Council. In that capacity, Bella, among other accomplishments, presided over the first National Conference on Women in Houston in 1977 where 2,000 elected delegates from every state and territory in the U.S. and 18,000 observers attended and developed a precedent-setting National Platform of Action for women.
As a pioneering attorney, a highly effective member of Congress (D.NY) representing the West Side and Lower East Side of Manhattan, and a leader in the global movement for women’s rights, Ms. Abzug has often been credited with “jumpstarting the international feminist movement.” Bella always moved deftly between community activism and government or institutional power by exercising her tactical brilliance, wit and charisma in the courts, the Congress, the United Nations and in the streets—yet she always preserved her fierce integrity and never hesitated to take risks on behalf of her ideals. She was skilled at translating her visions and altruistic hopes into pragmatic solutions. She was the author of two successful books, “Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington” and “The Gender Gap,” the latter co-authored with friend and colleague, Mim Kelber. She also lectured widely throughout the United States and internationally, tirelessly campaigning for the rights of women.
Ever open to new approaches, Bella continually devised innovative strategies to further her vision of equality and power for women in the United States and abroad. In the last decade of her life, in the early 1990’s, she co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), one of the largest non-governmental organizations working in the United Nations and internationally to achieve full economic rights and equal representation for women. Bella led WEDO until her death, at age 77, in 1998. She was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls and is the recipient of numerous prestigious national and international awards. A year before her death, Bella received the highest civilian recognition and honor at the U.N., the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award. Bella was married to her beloved husband Martin for 42 years. Together they raised two daughters, Eve and Liz (Isobel).